The 4J School District has been asked to remove totem poles from school property. A letter signed by 10 tribal members explained, totem poles do not represent Oregon tribal history. By continuing to display them, Eugene schools are perpetuating harmful stereotypes and false narratives. At the Human Rights Commission Jan. 23:
Drae Charles (City staff, Human Rights Commission): So, this came through earlier today. It was addressed as a letter to the 4J’s board of directors and their superintendent. But the Human Rights Commission was (copied) on this email. So:
[00:00:34] ‘To Superintendent Dey and Eugene School District 4J Board of Directors:
‘Despite the passage of Senate Bill 13 requiring Oregon school districts to implement a historically accurate place-based American Indian curriculum, we are still experiencing stereotypes and false narratives.
[00:00:50] ‘Totem poles are not part of the history of any of the nine tribes in Oregon, nor the culture of the original inhabitants of this land, the Kalapuya people. Kalapuyans found canoes to be much more useful to ply the waters of the Willamette River and its tributaries, and canoe families have created a curriculum for students regarding unity and teamwork.
[00:01:10] ‘So, why co-opt totem poles? There are approximately 574 Native tribes in North America, each with their own distinct traditions, culture, and language. There is no ‘universal symbol’ representing the American Indian; that would be too disrespectful to our ancestors.
[00:01:29] ‘The federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act states that to be considered Native art, all artists who contribute to the artwork must be an enrolled tribal member.
[00:01:39] ‘The main artist and architect of the totem poles on 4J campuses is not Native. The students enrolled in the 4J NATIVES program do not have to prove tribal membership to participate in the program, nor did the boy scouts of Troop 61, who also worked on the poles. The Boy Scouts of America organization is one of the biggest appropriators of Native culture.
[00:01:59] ‘Why then marginalize and diminish Kalapuya traditions with non-native, non-historically accurate, poor applications of Tlingit / Haida / Salish / Tsimshian culture? It’s particularly egregious coming from an institution of education.
[00:02:11] ‘This mischaracterization is precisely why the Oregon Department of Education partnered with the tribes to create the Essential Understandings of Native Americans of Oregon policy: to educate students on the accurate and authentic experiences of tribal peoples in Oregon.
[00:02:25] ‘We have no quarrel with the students who participated on the project. We would advise them to speak with the adults that misled them to believe that totem poles were representative of their Native roots. Hopefully they were taught some valuable woodworking skills. Their work has been prominently, publicly displayed for years, a privilege that the majority of 4J student artists have not received.
[00:02:47] ‘We honor the Kalapuya because their spirits still reside here. Their descendants, the Grande Ronde and Siletz people, still reside here. We would urge the 4J School District to have a closer relationship with the Siletz Tribal office located in Eugene, and to remember that one person alone cannot speak for an entire race.
[00:03:05] ‘In this instance, the entirety of the Lane County Native community is affected by these lies masquerading as truth.
(‘We ask that the existing totem poles be removed from all 4J campuses and that no new poles be erected. The most common method for retiring totem poles is cremation. You could also return them to the non-Native master carver man who profited from them or elect to place them unobtrusively in a horizontal position to surrender them back to Mother Earth.)
[00:03:11] ‘We thank you for your attention to this matter. (Ah ho, Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ.) Respectfully,’ and there’s about 10 signatories on it: Esther Stutzman from the Kalapuya Tribe, Sandra Shotridge (Tlingit), Nick Sixkiller and Kelly Sixkiller (Cherokee), Jolene Bettles (Klamath), Tahnee Mustoe (Cherokee), Stephanie Tabibian (Shoshone Paiute), Shani Attrell (Cherokee), Kunu Bearchum (Ho Chunk), and Jan Smith (Kiowa).
[00:03:38] Dr. Silky Booker (Eugene Human Rights Commission): What a grand time to stop whitewashing people’s history and culture. I think that letter was exquisite in terms of painting a picture on how the Eurocentric influence has whitewashed other cultures in their history. And I think 4J needs to take immediate action to acknowledge that letter and remove the totem poles or any false imagery that the Native American students or representatives don’t deem worthy of their culture.
[00:04:16] I look at this the same way as how everybody gave Thomas Edison credit for the light bulb when it was really Louis Latimer that wrote—a black man that did the blueprints for the light bulb. So we have to get to a point where we stop whitewashing and speaking for other cultures…
[00:04:35] Instead of talking around things, we need to address them directly. And that’s why I use the word whitewash. And I hope that fellow commissioners, regardless to what side of the aisle they sit on, understand the political climate that’s brewing and it’s only going to get worse. So, we need to elevate our voices now. We need to put a stop to it now. We need to make sure that cultures are being represented the way they want to be represented and respected.
[00:05:04] John Q: The letter was referred to a Human Rights Commission working group. They’ll follow up with the signatories and report back to the commission.